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Local author to release new young adult novel

Heather Mateus Sappenfield is releasing her latest novel, “The River Between Hearts,” on Feb. 1 at The Bookworm

A live book launch for the new novel will take place at The Bookworm in Edwards on Feb. 1.
Heather Mateus Sappenfield/Courtesy Photo

Local author Heather Mateus Sappenfield is releasing her fourth book, “The River Between Hearts,” on Feb. 1 at The Bookworm in Edwards.

Sappenfield’s latest book is a young adult novel that follows the story of two 11-year-old girls in Colorado who are each dealing with a personal tragedy. A chance encounter starts a friendship that breaks through cultural barriers and teaches both the characters and readers what it means to have compassion for others.

Friendship and compassion

The narrator of the story is third-grader Rill Kruse, and the novel begins 113 days after Rill has lost her father to a river rafting accident. In denial of his death, Rill is still waiting for him to return home, when she comes across a stowaway hiding in her family’s tree house.



The stowaway is a young girl named Perla, who is the same age as Rill and is on her own after her family was deported to Mexico by the US immigration agency. The two girls go on an adventure to reconnect Perla with her family, and the journey tests their understanding of themselves, each other, and of the world around them.

Sappenfield is a long-time Vail resident who has lived in the valley for over 30 years. The inspiration for “The River Between Hearts” came from the author’s experience as a teacher at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards. Sappenfield said she taught a number of undocumented students, and witnessed the impacts of deportation firsthand.



“Some mornings I’d walk through the school’s front doors to discover a group of them gathered in the lobby, crying and comforting each other because a family member – or maybe a few – had been rounded up for deportation the day or night before,” Sappenfield said. “I tried to imagine how that must feel: Being left behind in a foreign country with no documentation and no family. Later, these students would be in my class, trying to concentrate, learn, and continue on. Their courage amazed me.”

Heather Mateus Sappenfield has lived in Vail for over 30 years. This is her fourth novel.
Katherine Schmidt Photography/Courtesy Photo

In the book, Sappenfield tackles the difficult topic of immigration through the eyes of a child, which allows her to emphasize the lived reality of what children of undocumented immigrants are regularly experiencing across the country.

“It’s written through an almost-eleven-year-old’s eyes because Perla’s predicament is happening to kids—here in the Vail Valley, throughout Colorado, across our nation, and around the globe,” Sappenfield said. “I hope this novel illustrates the costs of apathy or indifference and, through Rill stumbling along and making mistakes, guides young readers toward compassion.”

Based on real experiences in the valley

In order to accurately represent Perla’s experience in the novel, Sappenfield interviewed a number of her former students from Battle Mountain High School, who shared their personal stories of families being deported right here in the valley.

“They all helped me shape Perla, but one of them in particular – Perla’s story follows hers so closely that she’s going to get half of the royalties from the book,” Sappenfield said. “I couldn’t have done it without her, and it’s very much her story.”

Over the course of the book, Sappenfield guides the reader through different phases of compassion, starting with sympathy and slowly moving towards true empathy for another person’s suffering and circumstances.

“In writing her journey, she goes from basically feeling sympathy towards Perla and wanting to help her, but in sympathy implied is sort of a pity – still a distance, and a looking down on that person,” Sappenfield said. “You can help people, but still not view them as equals. So really, it’s a story of both of them learning to see each other as people, as equals, and then from that having compassion and learning to have empathy.”

The setting of the book will be familiar to all local readers, as it is derived from the natural environment and lifestyle of the valley. The Colorado River plays a prominent role in the plot, and Sappenfield uses this defining feature of our landscape to tie together various threads in the novel.

“For me, it was the river connecting not only Rill and her family with everything they do – they’re river guides, and snowmobile guides – but then it also connects Perla to her family in Mexico,” Sappenfield said. “I was hoping it would also stretch symbolically to being the river of compassion that can connect people in their hearts.”

A message for all ages

While the book is written at a young adult level, Sappenfield believes it is a valuable read for people of all ages.

“It can apply to anywhere in Colorado and our nation – I mean, it’s going on everywhere right now,” Sappenfield said. “But I specifically wrote it as a bit of a love song to our valley: that we’re so world-class and we provide such a high-level product, and yet there’s this understory of what’s going on here within the community.”

Sappenfield will be releasing the novel at an in-person book launch on Feb. 1 at The Bookworm in Edwards. For more information about the book launch, visit bookwormofedwards.com. For more information about the author and “The River Between Hearts,” visit heathermateussappenfield.com.


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